Q&A with Pennsylvania's Blues Rock guitarist Charlie Wheeler -- hard-driving Jam Rock & blue-collar Soul

"I miss the young kids being into rock music. I miss kids sitting around talking about which keyboardist was their favorite in Grateful Dead history, or who the bassist for Little Feat was. I miss the poetry and thoughtfulness that Rock Music embraced."

Charlie Wheeler: A Karmic Bluesman

Northern PA’s rock trio, the Charlie Wheeler Band, delivers rippin’ guitar jams that make their bad-ass live shows a high energy experience where fans party hard all night long. The band’s hard-driving, blue-collar soul music is reminiscent of the Black Crowes and The Allman Brothers Band, coupled with the blunt force of Pearl Jam. With lyrics that can at times be light, heavy, deep, and even funny, the band’s songs tell stories of life, love, and living life on the edge. Hailing from a small town called Ridgway, PA, the Charlie Wheeler Band exudes a toughness that can only be cultivated in the working class environs from which they’ve emerged. Powered by the rhythm section of Rad Akers on Drums (Big Leg Emma) and Dave Fink on Bass (That Dog In Egypt), Charlie Wheeler describes the band as a “song first” type of band. Fans and critics alike appreciate the band’s balance of sharp songwriting, engaging vocals and skilled musicianship. With songwriting that is entertaining, even a little irreverent at times, the Charlie Wheeler Band never disappoints with a powerhouse show and sick guitar jams.

While expansive, improvisational jamming is a key component to their live show, their third album Rewind is a solid group of structured songs which allow Wheeler to tear into his vocal and lead guitar work with reckless, pent up hostility. Raves Lou Lombardi of Blue Rock Review, “While Charlie is a great guitarist and vocalist, what really makes Rewind work is the songwriting. Strip away the crushing rhythm section, smoking guitar work, snarling vocals, and we are left with a set of very beautiful and touching songs.” Michael Greenblatt of the Aquarian Weekly said of the album that he was excited to “find some good rock ‘n’ roll again after almost giving up!” The new Charlie Wheeler Band 4th album release “Blues Karma and the Kitchen Sink,” due out October 7, 2016, will excite fans as a reaffirmation of the band’s signature hard-driving, blue-collar soul style. The CD exemplifies the gritty, rockin’ blues music that the band has come to be known for. Recorded at Graphite Sound in Warren, PA, “Blues Karma and the Kitchen Sink” has already garnered critics’ praise. With three other albums under their belt, including Highway Run (2008), Line Em Up (2011), and, most recently, Rewind (2015), this album truly cements the band’s rippin’ blues guitar rock status. Engineered by Anthony Brown and produced by Charlie Wheeler and Anthony Brown, “Blues Karma and the Kitchen Sink” stands out in the band’s discography for its diversity of songs, from ballads to slow blues to grunge to blues rock, without compromising our artistic integrity.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?

I’ve learned that I live and exist on that “maturity level tipping point,” that people need to walk professional musician road. If one tips towards the mature side, one becomes too sensible, his better judgement sends him back to the suburbs, he starts a family, and while he sits on the sidelines of his kid’s soccer game, he wonders what happened to his dream of being a touring musician. If one tips towards the immature side, you can’t remember to pack your toothbrush, guitar picks or forget your wallet on your dresser at home, only to realize it at the first place you stop to get gas. It’s like walking a razor’s edge. You have to be a big enough idiot to even try this business, but not so big of an idiot that you keep having to call your brother for bail money.

“The blues” means a few things to me. As a music genre, it means history, poetry and inspired genius. Generally, these moments of genius were fueled by extreme poverty and oppression. Most of the original blues men had parents and most certainly grandparents who were slaves at one point in their lives. I can only imagine what that would do to your psyche. Out of that suffering came the single greatest American music form ever created. As it pertains to my own personal life (not that it matters that much, but since you asked), it can possibly be described as emotional, soulful moments in my existence when musical inspiration happens. Sometimes it’s positive, most of the time not.

How do you describe Charlie Wheeler sound and songbook?

Our sound is a linear, muscular, aggressive style of blues-rock that has many influences, from the Allman Brothers to Bootsy Collins to early Pearl Jam to Stevie Ray Vaughan, even a little Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. I insist upon tight production in both the recording studio and on the live stage. I don’t love organized chaos. It’s hard to be consistent. It’s also quite a large sound for a trio…we make a lot of music for just three guys. Luckily, my band Bassist Dave Fink and Drummer Rad Akers both really buy into this philosophy. Sometimes it can take us 2 months to get a song into the live show. It has to right and it has to be tight.  I really appreciate those guys for their diligence. We all realize that it pays off in the end. As far as the songbook, I’d describe it as a group of mature, fully developed songs, sometimes simple, sometimes complicated, but always complete. You see man, I write music that I want to hear, for myself. I want it to kick me in the chest, move my emotions, stir my soul. If it doesn’t do that, why bother?

What characterizes your musical philosophy?

In a word, I’d say “discerning.” I throw a lot of half written songs in the waste basket. Why try to push a song that isn’t going anywhere. It either has a hook or it doesn’t have a hook. I am very choosy with what I even share with my family and band. If I can’t envision the audience digging the groove or lyrics I’m working on, why would I bore my band or my family with it? It’s like what my friend Preach Freedom (long time Rusted Root drummer and current solo artist) said to me. He said “Charlie there are only two types of music, GOOD and BAD.” A rather subjective statement yes, but we all have our own judgement that helps us discern between what we like and what we don’t.

"Our sound is a linear, muscular, aggressive style of blues-rock that has many influences, from the Allman Bros to Bootsy Collins to early Pearl Jam to Stevie Ray, even a little Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. I insist upon tight production in both the recording studio and on the live stage."

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

A long time ago, when living in Colorado, I played in a band with a fantastic Bassist named Eric. I was writing a lot of songs with decent lyrics, but I was very new to songwriting. He came to me after about three practices and said “Charlie your songs are so nice and melodic.” I said “Thanks Eric.”  He then said to me “can I make one more observation about your songs?...they F@*#king BORING!!” I was astonished, but then I sat back and thought, you know what?  He’s right, my songs ARE boring.  So even though I can’t remember Eric’s last name, he made a huge impact on my songwriting.  Also in Colorado, I met a songwriter named Steve Davis and his advice has always stayed with me. He said “it doesn’t matter what you look like, who you know or where you come from; you have to have great songs. If you have great songs, you have something to work with.” So song quality is always my number one priority…along with not being boring.  

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Well, I was just at a show last week and watched a “little person” (sometimes called a midget) kick the crap out of somebody (who absolutely deserved it). Playing live gigs for the public is just one big, wild crazy ride man. But if it’s not current material, why tell the story.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the young kids being into rock music. I miss kids sitting around talking about which keyboardist was their favorite in Grateful Dead history, or who the bassist for Little Feat was. I miss the poetry and thoughtfulness that Rock Music embraced. It just seems like so much of popular music today is about getting high, drunk, laid, rich or in a fight. I miss the days when being an intellectual songwriter was considered the cool thing.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Other than Charlie Wheeler Band becoming a household name? I’d stop the degradation of music in schools. No wonder these kids don’t appreciate skilled musicianship. Half of them have never touched an instrument. We have to save music programs in our schools. It’s a huge issue and it’s where societies begin to break down. Decisions like that.

"I’d have to say Woodstock, but only if we were on stage with all of those amazing bands. Then we could hang with Jimi (Hendrix)." (Charlie Wheeler on stage / Photo by Kevin Stiffler)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Black Crowes and The Allman Brothers Band, to Pearl Jam?

In my humble and rather meaningless opinion on the matter, it’s simply a common thread between all of these bands. They all derive from the blues man. They’re not blues bands, but they sure do the blues a lot of justice.       Look at The Allmans, they got famous playing Elmore James and Blind Willie McTell…the Black Crowes got their first big hit with Otis Redding’s Hard to Handle…And Pearl Jam’s guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard made their music with big, bad ass riffs, all based in the blues scales.  Same with me. I listen to Duane Allman, Marc Ford, Mike McCready, and all I hear is Elmore James and Robert Johnson…just, I don’t know, evolved ya know? Like “post Hendrix blues.”

How has the Rock n’ Blues Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Well I guess I’ve always had a little rebel in me and I needed a soundtrack. After I got kicked out of college I hung around the Dead tour, drove out west, lived in places like Telluride, Colorado and San Francisco, California (before settling in Pennsylvania). I realized that freedom is something I can’t take for granted, and time is something I can’t waste. I like to think I’ve done well in these two categories. And wouldn’t that embody what the counterculture is?  Staying motivated, and not wasting any of the precious time we have. Being counterculture doesn’t mean “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” anymore. For me it means, be free to experiment with what works best for you in your life.

What is the impact of Blues and Rock music to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Well, musicians have always been messengers. 99.9% of all parents would never encourage their kids to become musicians. But when there is a societal issue, who do we always seem to hear from? Artists, musicians, authors, actors, directors, etc. Look, everyone is on their own trip politically and socially, so there is no answer that will catch all points of view in one net. I would state that when one has the microphone, they do have power, power to influence and power to persuade. So use that power wisely.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I’d have to say Woodstock, but only if we were on stage with all of those amazing bands. Then we could hang with Jimi.

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